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Lee on Literature: The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

August 19, 2011, 1:00 pm
By LeeMiller

 This week, author Lee Miller explores the deeper meaning behind London's recent riots.

During a four-night period (Aug. 6-10) riots flashed and spread from Tottenham, North London, to many other parts of England, resulting in five deaths, numerous injuries, approximately 3,000 arrests and more than $300 million dollars in property theft and damage. This rage began with the police shooting of suspected drug dealer Mark Duggan and mysteriously escalated to unrelated neighborhoods and cities. In the aftermath, many continue to ask: Why? The apparent demographic of the looters—ages 12-25, mixed across race and class lines—adds more mystery than clarity. One possible explanation of the English riots’ cause is revealed in the 2008 Booker Prize-winning book The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.

 

The White Tiger is a letter written over a period of seven days by the protagonist, Balram Halwai, to Wen Jiabao, the Premier of China. In this letter, Halwai explains how he rose from an undereducated boy cleaning tea shops in his south India home village, to a servant/driver for a wealthy family in Delhi, to a successful transportation entrepreneur supporting call centers in Bangalore. His material rise held only one catch: Balram murdered his master to advance. He explains why he is one in a billion—why he is a white tiger—and how he jumps impossible barriers and defines a modern India (and China).

 

Adiga avoids a lyrical story, using Balram’s direct and lighthearted voice to reveal the underbelly of modern India: the stream of sewage that flows through the village center, the exploitation of Indian landlords, the constant corruption of police and politicians, the hordes of homeless in Delhi lining bridges, underpasses and many city blocks, and the degrading classism of the “haves”—in short, how impossible it is to “advance” in India. At one point, Balram points out a symbolic Indian invention: “Why does the rooster coop work? Because Indians are trained to live in perpetual servitude.”

 

At the climax of the story, Balram (a servant-driver) murders his master, the kindly and civil Ashok. Balram steals a large red bag stuffed with bribe money, flees from Delhi to Bangalore and starts up a corporate taxi service for blooming call centers. He is never caught, because the wanted poster looks like half of the men in India. From a Western point of view, most cheer Balram’s courageous material victory, feeling the outrage of his material surroundings and class discrimination. The average Indian would find The White Tiger a wild exaggeration.

 

Balram says that “99.9 percent of Indians won’t steal the money or murder for gain. Why? Because they are caught in the rooster coop,” a place where animals are crushed together, barely living, and blind to the systemic servitude and slaughter of all those in surrounding cages. The average Indian would point out that the real and very subtle reason India’s per capita crime rate is drastically lower than England’s: Indians don’t care so much about money; materialism is not their top priority.

 

Aravind hooks the Western reader with this tale of material transcendence, first laying the groundwork of outrage by exaggerating the filth and corruption of India. Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie), A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry) and the movie Slumdog Millionaire all use the same exaggerations to hook the Western reader: Oh, look how awfully they live! The protagonists are owed something by their society. Western minds are so conditioned upon material aspects of India that they miss the sublime: Most Indians live by a completely different value set than Westerners.

 

If a village man sets up a tarp stall on a Delhi street and sells shirts for a modest income, has a wife and children nearby, visits extended family often, has enough to eat and enjoys the constant friendship of other surrounding vendors, he is happy. This contentment is nearly unfathomable to a Western mind because everyone, especially the younger generation, is conditioned to want much more, to strive for “a better life.” Millions of Indians lead very modest but content lives, yet the Westerner is blinded by the country’s superficial appearance. Once beyond the “poverty,” Westerners often discover this mysterious contentment of India, its “spirituality,” and search for its mystical source via yoga, tantric sex or hashish. The great irony is that Westerners have a degree more of material comfort, yet they have two degrees less of happiness and peace.

 

When the skirmish broke out in north London and rioting sparked, many joined in the looting. Like Balram, English youth felt owed something by their corrupt society and seized an open opportunity. Yet after arrest, most of the 12-25-year-old looters—black, brown, white, rich and poor—could not explain why they were stealing booze, cigarettes and sports clothing. Their answer may be found in The White Tiger.

 

Lee Miller is the author of the Bengali novel, Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com).

 

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